In my Foreign Service experience so far, overseas tours can be divided into three parts. During the first third, you are focused on settling in, waiting for your shipments to arrive, setting up your household, and adjusting to your work and surroundings. During the second third, you still have a learning curve, but feel more or less competent at navigating your personal and professional environments. You have friends, routine, and all your favorite places. This is the sweet spot. You aren’t moving, and the outcome of any bidding does not seem totally real…yet. You feel (gasp) ‘at home!’ And then comes the final third, when you have received your onward assignment. You must then balance what you have remaining to accomplish in-country with what you need to arrange moving forward. Ladies and gentlemen, we are rapidly approaching that final third.
I think how most Foreign Service Officers (FSOs) and their families approach the final months of a tour depends a lot on how they feel about their current and onward assignments. Leaving Australia will be more painful than leaving Uzbekistan, because although my tour in Uzbekistan laid my foundation as an FSO, we have loved – and been loved back by – Australia in a very different way.
And my relationship with Australia precedes the Foreign Service; I loved and left once before. When I finished grad school in Australia in July 2006, I gazed down over Sydney as my flight ascended, my heart swelling and with tears trickling down my face. Still I was beaming and thinking, “Thank you.” It will probably be something like that, and less like the congratulatory toast V and I did after we exited Uzbek air space.
But it can be far too easy to miss the here and now while you’re busy thinking about a previous post you loved, or daydreaming about a future post, or getting anxious about future arrangements. Frankly, this is kind of why – in some weird way – I almost dreaded getting my third assignment. Not because I can’t handle leaving, or because I feared I would hate the assignment, but because I am so loving that sweet middle third right now. Once you know, all the questions and planning inevitably starts.
Here are a few things that started occurring to me once I had my third tour handshake:
Where should we spend our home leave? Should we do a PCS rest stop on the way instead of just flying straight through like we usually do? How much money can I save over the next nine months and still maintain my zero-credit card debt rule? We are going to need to amend our property insurance for transit. Am I going to be able to recall my car out of storage in Antwerp for use in the U.S.? Will it be too old to import to Mexico? If we can bring it should we also buy a new car as our primary vehicle? Will my Spanish class include an opportunity to do an immersion trip in Guatemala or Ecuador, and how much does it cost? Should my husband look for work during our nine months stateside, or focus on trying to learn Spanish? Where will he work next year, and the next? Where should we live in Virginia? What route should we take and how many days should we spend when we PCS by car to Mexico?
Whooooooa. Some of that stuff is literally a problem for the year 2020. Slow down! But it is hard for me. What if I miss something? Even if it is not the right time for some of those questions, they are still renting a small space in my head.
I guess I have always been a person who is motivated by the future. I’ve tried to play the long game in almost everything I do. I plan. I game out scenarios and try to imagine the unforeseen for fun. “Stay ready so you don’t have to get ready,” has been a motto. I’m OK with ambiguity, and even like it, but I find that the more variables present, the more my mind runs wild with “if this, then this” scenarios, whether they matter or not.
I thought it was interesting several years ago when my office at Peace Corps HQ did a team-building exercise called the Clifton StrengthsFinder 2.0 and my top strengths came back as Focus, Discipline, and Futuristic. The first two did not surprise me (or my colleagues), and in fact elicited some chuckles. But “futuristic?” Did StrengthsFinder 2.0 somehow detect my love of sci-fi?
“Wouldn’t it be great if . . .” You are the kind of person who loves to peer over the horizon. The future fascinates you. As if it were projected on the wall, you see in detail what the future might hold, and this detailed picture keeps pulling you forward, into tomorrow. While the exact content of the picture will depend on your other strengths and interests — a better product, a better team, a better life, or a better world — it will always be inspirational to you.
You are a dreamer who sees visions of what could be and who cherishes those visions. When the present proves too frustrating and the people around you too pragmatic, you conjure up your visions of the future and they energize you. They can energize others, too. In fact, very often people look to you to describe your visions of the future. They want a picture that can raise their sights and thereby their spirits. You can paint it for them.
So that’s what that is, I thought then. I’m being pulled forward by my visions. Not just planning neuroses?! I don’t know if I ever thought of myself as a ‘dreamer,’ but I guess in this sense it’s fair. On the thinking side, I want to know what is coming, and how I can arrange outcomes I will find favorable. And on the feeling side, I want to imagine myself growing as a person and experiencing new things in future ways that I cannot yet predict or analyze.
Today on Facebook I read a comment from a long-serving FSO saying that she has a rule before a permanent change of station (PCS) move: she does not start ‘planning’ for the next move until it’s six months away. I thought, What a great idea.
But, while I have decided not to obsess and let zen be my guide, whether I like it or not, there ARE some things related to our August 2019 PCS that I will have to pay attention to on a rolling basis to be responsive and make professional life run smoothly.
1. The Bureau of Consular Affairs registered my handshake on the Ciudad Juárez job – that is done. Yay me! I heard from at least two of my A-100 colleagues that they knew other officers who wanted the job and were disappointed they did not get it, which reminds me to be grateful.
2. My Career Development Officer (CDO) reached out to let me know that my Assignments Officer (AO) would bring me to panel and let me know when I am officially paneled into the position. No action for me right now.
3. In the meantime, I reached out to the PCS Lodging program and gave them our preferred housing arrangements for September 2019-May 2020. Because I am so early, we’re probably going to get into the Arlington building we want near the Clarendon metro station. Downside: we don’t have the option to upgrade at our expense to a two-bedroom apartment, because my orders will be for 2 people and that’s what they go by. Boo to a smaller, less visitor-friendly and study-friendly space.
4. Once I am paneled, I will receive my TMONE, or ‘assignment notification’ cable from the Department. It basically says what position I am going to, vice whom, when, and outlines entitlements and instructions for me to generate my TMTWO, or ‘proposed orders’ cable. (Yep, that is the FSO’s responsibility, and the Department will not generate your TMFOUR, otherwise known as your ‘orders’ to travel at government expense, without it!) Your TMTWO matters because it is where you outline your transfer plan. Mine will probably say something like, leaving Australia on x date with spouse and two bags each, and x pounds of air and sea freight to be sent to VA and/or held for Mexico arrival, with a rest stop from x date to x date in Hawaii (?), home leave from x date to x date, onward flight to Washington on x date, at PCS lodging from x date to x date, with time built in for language and consular training, a week of consultations, and then the dates we will drive to Mexico. Your TMTWO is also the time to propose the recall and delivery of any stored effects.
5. I made a timeline sketch already of everything that needs to happen between August 2019 and May 2020. I looked up all the Foreign Service Institute (FSI) training courses I want and their dates, and will send them to my AO in the hopes I can keep the timing that works best for us.
6. I also started a running list of consultations I want to schedule with particular people and offices ahead of my arrival in Juárez. As things occur to me, I add them on. I did a relatively half-assed job of this before my first and second tours, and I will not make that mistake again.
7. I EVEN scrolled ahead to my work Outlook calendar for January 2020 and put a reminder to write introductory letters to the Ambassador of Mission Mexico and the Consul General of Ciudad Juárez and mail them through the official diplomatic pouch. BOOM! And DOUBLE BOOM!
8. Eventually next year, my Assignments Technician will issue my TMFOUR (orders) and then I will need to work here at Post on the actual travel arrangements and start the ball rolling on a pre-packout survey, putting both cars up for sale, closing our bank accounts, and a million other details that ex-pats will recognize as ‘shutting down your overseas life.’
Oh dear. I think I lost the here and now again.
Nope – there it is!
So while I will keep an eye on my PCS, I will do the minimum, in a very conscious and intentional way. I am looking at a busy remainder of my tour, filled with work obligations, reporting, tradecraft, learning new things, and even some TDYs. On the personal side, V and I are planning trips to Melbourne, Tasmania, the coast, Sydney for New Year’s, Adelaide, Darwin, and the outback. We’ll get to New Zealand too if we can.
The here and now is this: We have nine months remaining in Australia. We wouldn’t wish them away for anything. We will live the rest of this experience as fully as we can. And since we made it through the bumpy first third, with me being hospitalized four times, V out of work, our first car breaking down a million times, and missing HHE, we can only finish strong!
At this moment, it is a sunny, early summer Sunday afternoon. The roses are blooming in the backyard, and the Aussie birds are singing, screeching, or chirping, as the case may be.
On this week of Thanksgiving, I am truly filled with gratitude.